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IFEX-TMG members call for charges to be dropped against journalist Omar Mestiri

(IFEX-TMG) - The following is a joint declaration by members of the IFEX-TMG:

IFEX-TMG Calls for Charges Against Tunisian Journalist Omar Mestiri to be Dropped

On the eve of the trial of Tunisian journalist Omar Mestiri, the members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) are calling for charges to be dropped, and for a cessation in free expression violations in Tunisia. Mestiri, managing editor of the online magazine "Kalima", is due to appear in court on 16 August 2007 in Tunis on charges of defamation that could lead to his imprisonment for up to three years.
IFEX-TMG Chair Carl Morten Iversen says, "This politically motivated trial comes as a reminder that the Tunisian authorities seem determined to keep using police and the courts to harass and silence journalists and democracy advocates." The release on 24 July of lawyer and human rights activist Mohamed Abbou along with 20 other political prisoners, which was welcomed by TMG members, cannot be seen as part of a genuine step on the part of the government toward ending attacks on freedom of expression and association when continued violations persist.

National and international human rights groups have been protesting over the past years the imprisonment of hundreds of Tunisians following unfair and politically motivated trials. Furthermore, former political prisoners are denied the right to earn a living and their freedom of movement remains tightly restricted. One notable case is that of Abdallah Zouari, the former reporter for the now-defunct Islamist weekly "Al Fajr", who spent 11 years in prison and more than five years under virtual house arrest nearly 500 km away from his wife and children. In June this year the Ministry of the Interior extended for 26 months the arbitrary banishment and constant police surveillance of Zouari in the suburbs of the city of Zarzis.

TMG members are pleased that so far, since his release, Abbou has been able to give interviews to journalists and speak freely of his determination to keep exercising his basic right to freedom of expression and to criticise the government. We call on the Tunisian government to continue to allow Abbou and his family to be free from harassment.

Mestiri's case is in a way similar to Abbou's. Both of them have been charged for critical articles posted on websites blocked by the Tunisian authorities. In both cases the charges are based on complaints filed by lawyers close to the authorities. We understand that his lawyers urged the court on 2 August to postpone the trial because there was no reason to hold it while the ordinary judicial year is in recess until it re-opens in mid-September. The TMG questions the validity of hearing the case in court at all when it appears to be based on spurious charges.
The suit against Mestiri was brought by Mohammed Baccar, a lawyer who was once disbarred by the Tunisian Bar Association after having been convicted for fraud and forgery. Baccar took Mestiri to court after "Kalima" posted an article on 5 September 2006 criticising the decision of the Tunisian Bar Association to reinstate him last year.

The IFEX-TMG members would like to reiterate the call to President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to improve Tunisia's free expression record, at a time when the country is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Tunisian Republic, and in light of its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 19 of the Covenant specifically guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

Members of the IFEX-TMG:
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO), Egypt
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), the Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers' Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK

IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group

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